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INY," began Louisa, with tears. Louisa was forty years old, married with good fortune far beyond her deserts to Miles Barrett, and the mother of six children. "Tiny-"
Wilhelmina answered long before the eyes of her other sisters, Harriet and Mary, had had time to flash to each other disapproval of Louisa's tactlessness. Harriet was Mrs. Herbert Wilson, Mary was the wife of the Rev. John Smith.
"My name is not 'Tiny,' Louisa. It is Wilhelmina, and I wish you to remember it. I was perfectly willing to be called "Tiny' when I was a baby, but now that I am forty-two years old and five feet nine inches tall, I do not like it, especially from persons younger than I."
"Very well," assented Louisa, dully. She said to herself that she would have assented to anything, if only this horrible business could be cleared up. But of that Louisa could see no prospect, even though the minds of all of them were bent upon its solving. Their father was at hand also, working at his desk in the next room, but he could not help. Father did not count, had never counted. Within his book-crammed library he was allowed to be as queer, as untidy, and as irritable as he liked; outside it, his wife and his younger daughters had always treated him like a child. He was supposed to understand them no more than they understood his Arabic texts. Harriet always spoke of the texts as Choctaw.
Now he worked away calmly, making the strange noises in his throat to which his women-folk had long since grown accustomed, and remaining totally oblivious to the fact that there was in progress the first serious difficulty of their amiable lives.
The slight testimony he had given had only complicated the matter for Wilhelmina.
Either by chance or with great tact John Barrett had taken himself off. He was Miles Barrett's brother, held in enormous awe by Miles's wife. When he had arrived unexpectedly from Boston she had sent him as usual to her father's. This time her guest-room was being papered, and John was not a person to whom one could offer less than one's best. Louisa and Harriet and Mary all sent unexpected guests or bothersome children to their father's. And John Barrett always frightened Louisa, he was so important a person, and exceedingly cultivated. Louisa never knew what to say to him. She often wondered what he thought of Wilhelmina, and hoped that the superior creature comforts which one had at "father's" would compensate for the dullness of mind of an unmarried woman of forty-two. She had advised Wilhelmina to send his breakfast to his room in the English fashion. Fortunately, he was not there for many other meals. Louisa still prayed that he might have been away all of last night. It was bad enough to have a sister unmarried at forty-two; it was horrible to feel that that sister had been guilty of an amazing indiscretion and that a person like John Barrett knew it.
Wilhelmina stood by the window, the sunshine on her curly hair. Her sisters had always envied her her curls and her slenderness. They envied her the more now as they themselves grew fat and gray. It seemed such a waste for Wilhelmina to be so pretty.
Wilhelmina made no defense; she pretended not to know what they meant.
"It was this way," explained Harriet. She was not tearful like Louisa; emotion made her almost savage. She had been outrageously treated, and she meant to speak her mind. Her husband's deprecatory cough had no effect upon her. "We came into town to the theater and we missed our train.”
"As you very often do, Harriet," interrupted Wilhelmina, calmly. Already in the position of the greatest strategic value with her back to the light, she now sat down and took up some knitting as an additional support. She never sewed; she hated putting in tiny stitches. It was not until much later in the day that any one remembered that for the first time in her life she had knitted on Sunday.
"It does n't make any difference whether we miss it or not," Harriet went on. "The children are well taken care of, and it gives Herbert a longer night's rest."
"We always have to waken Wilhelmina," reminded Herbert, uneasily.
Harriet proceeded, unheeding. She never paid any attention to what Herbert said. She had learned from her mother how to manage a husband.
"It is perfectly right that I should come to my father's house. It is still my home, just as though dear mother were still with us. As I said—” She turned her frowning brows from Herbert to Wilhelmina. There was not only disapproval in her eyes, but there was real concern, almost fright "as I said, we missed our train and came to my father's house to spend the night. And-" Harriet's voice rose tragically-"and we could not get in; the door was locked against us!"
"The maids cannot hear the bell in the third story," said Wilhelmina. She spoke quietly. They all spoke quietly, being well-bred women. "And father cannot hear."
"We have always got in before," said Harriet.
"Because you rapped on the pipe that runs down by my window," answered Wilhelmina. "I always heard you, and came down and let you in, and made up your beds, and got you something to eat." And you did n't hear us last night?" asked Harriet, slowly. Her tone offered to her sister an opportunity to confess. But Wilhelmina was dull.
"No," she said; “I did n't hear you."
"I should think you would have a bed made up constantly for such steady visitors, Wilhelmina," laughed Miles Barrett, a little uneasily. He was as fat as his wife, but much handsomer. He had always been fond of Wilhelmina; he pitied her now, with all these women after her. If it had been any morning but Sunday, he would have been at his office instead of in attendance at this family council. And why did they not come to the point? It was perfectly true that Wilhelmina had done a strange thing,—at least the women thought it was strange,- but he was perfectly sure that Wilhelmina could explain.
Wilhelmina smiled back at him.
"Harriet can't sleep in a bed that is n't freshly made up," she said. She turned to look smilingly at Harriet. "I'm sorry, Harriet, but I can't see that it is anything to be angry about. You 've been married for fifteen years, and you 've missed your train at least once a week ever since, and I've never failed to let you in and make you comfortable. Have Ï?"
"It is my father's house," protested Harriet. "I've always advised you, and helped you run it. I ought to be 'let in,' as you call it."
"No, Harriet." Wilhelmina laid down her knitting for an instant. "It is father's home, and it will be all his life, but it is not his house. It is my house. Aunt Wilhelmina gave it to me, as you know. And—” Wilhelmina paused for an instant, then went on with the deliberation of one who has long weighed her words-"the furnishings are mine. Mother left them to me in her will, as you know. I am delighted to have you and Herbert come in at any time, even in the middle of the night, and I am perfectly willing to get up and let you in. I do not mind Louisa's sending Mr. Barrett here-"
"Does he know?" faltered Louisa. Wilhelmina looked at her. “Does he know what, Louisa?"
It was then that Louisa remembered that the main issue had not been touched. "Oh, nothing," she groaned. “What were you saying, Ti-Wilhelmina?”
"And I am perfectly willing," went on Wilhelmina, even more calmly, "to have Louisa's four children here for a month while the other two have the mumps, and then to have the two while the other four
have the mumps. I am glad that is, I have been glad to leave the furniture exactly where it has been for the last twenty years because Mary has a sentimental fondness for having it the way mother placed it, even though it 's inconvenient and mother would have changed it long since, but I wish you would realize that it is because I like to please you, and not because I consider it my duty. And hereafter-"
"But-" began Harriet.
"But, Tiny!" gasped Louisa.
'Why, Wilhelmina!" cried Mary. "She 's perfectly right," said Louisa's husband, and the other men nodded. They became each moment more desirous of escape. Their errand began to seem insulting. Mary's jolly preacher husband reminded her that church-time was approaching, and she answered that there was still an hour.
"But, Wilhelmina!" Harriet's voice choked. She was getting to her subject at last. Louisa began to cry, red spots came into Mary's cheeks, and the men looked at the floor. "Where were you last night?"
"Where was I last night?" repeated Wilhelmina.
Harriet looked at her, gasping.
"I-I-don't want to seem like a spy, Wilhelmina, none of us does,—and we would n't d-dream you could do anything wrong. As I said, we missed our train, and then we could not get in. We did n't mind standing in the snow and banging at the pipe. And we might have gone right to a hotel, only I had to borrow overshoes to go home to-day, on account of the snow, and, besides, I was frightened. So we went to the chemist's at the corner and rang his night-bell, and he came down and let us in, and Herbert called you up on the 'phone, and there was no answer. was twelve o'clock, Wilhelmina."
"The maids are n't expected to answer the 'phone after eleven."
"But the extension 'phone is in your sitting-room, and you sleep with the door open and you are a light sleeper. You were n't in the house, Wilhelmina!" "Well," said Wilhelmina.
"And you had n't told any one you were going out, and there has never been a night in your life that we did n't know where you were, and-"
Wilhelmina laughed almost hysterically. "I am seven years older than you, Harriet."
"But I am married. And I have had children, and I-I know the world, and we have always planned everything for you, and we have tried to make it up to you because you were n't married, and-"
"Don't you think it is time I had a little liberty?" asked Wilhelmina, lightly.
"And so this morning early we called up the house again, and got father, and he said you were home last night."
"Did n't you believe him?"
"Our dear father," sobbed Mary, "it would be so easy to deceive him."
Louisa too burst into sobs. "And John Barrett must have known it," she said. "I had to send him here because the room was being papered. I don't know what he will think. I—”
Wilhelmina got slowly to her feet and looked round at them-at her three fat sisters and their greatly superior husbands, and over their heads at her father working away in the library. Her eyes seemed to say that the joke had gone far enough.
"Will you good people please tell me what you mean?" she asked sharply. "Miles, what is it?"
There was no cutting in before the flood of Harriet's speech.
"So we called a taxicab and drove to Louisa's, and there-and there-" The flood of words ceased. Harriet too resigned herself to tears.
"Miles!" begged Wilhelmina.
"It's all nonsense, I 'm sure," he said. "Louisa and Herbert came in, terribly wrought up, and we could n't get the house on the 'phone, and then our Helen came in in great excitement to say she 'd seen you going into a restaurant with a man. I told her she must be mistaken, but she insisted that she knew your hat or coat or something. The women thought it was late for you to be out, that 's all."
"Then what was my niece doing out at such an hour?" asked Wilhelmina.
"She had been to the theater," explained Louisa. "She was driving home with Mrs. Wentworth. She was chaperoned, Wilhelmina, and you were not. They all saw you, and poor Helen was so mortified she almost cried."
Wilhelmina's eyes traveled from one to
the other. The eyes of Louisa and Harriet and Mary were averted. The hysterical note returned to Wilhelmina's voice.
"Eighteen-year-old Helen weeping over the sins of her forty-two-year-old aunt! Does n't that seem a trifle ridiculous? And suppose I did go to a restaurant for supper after the theater!"
"Wilhelmina!" said Louisa.
"Wilhelmina!" cried Harriet. "Wilhelmina!" groaned Mary.
"Father would have to-to announce your engagement," she faltered. "And you could have a matron of honor. Any one of us could be it. And we would give you luncheons and-and-but, oh, Wilhelmina, why do you do it?"
Wilhelmina ignored the last despairing
"I think that such weddings are vulgar.'
"Vulgar!" cried Harriet and Louisa
"You don't know how often I have and Mary together. All their wedbeen there."
"That," wailed Louisa, "is the awful part."
dings had been six-week pageants of dinners and luncheons and theater-parties. Again their husbands looked at each other
"Or how often I may go there in the slyly. future."
Her three brothers-in-law, even the Rev. John Smith, stared at her with astonished, amazed approval. Her three sisters stared at one another aghast. That Wilhelmina, in the foolish immaturity of an unmarried person, might yield even once to the temptation to be unconventional was hard to believe; that she boldly purposed to repeat the offense was incredible.
There was a middle-aged woman of their acquaintance, a widow, who surrounded herself with a circle of admiring young men whom she took yachting and automobiling. Was Wilhelmina, staid, fortytwo-year-old Wilhelmina, to become another Anna Lenwood? They knew no wrong of Anna Lenwood, but her behavior was undignified, unconventional, mad.
They remembered with terror the elderly men, friends of their father, and the boys, sons of friends of their own, who liked to go to see Wilhelmina. They remembered also their own children, Wilhelmina's nieces and nephews, whom they had expected her to enrich as their Aunt Wilhelmina had enriched her. Suppose Wilhelmina should buy a yacht and an automobile!
Harriet found her breath first.
"No unmarried woman should go to a theater or to supper alone with a man if she is eighty," she declared. "The newer set may do those things. We do not."
"But suppose," said Wilhelmina, slowly, "suppose I should say I was going to be married."
"Yes, vulgar," said Wilhelmina. "Well, I give up!" cried Harriet. "And to whom," faltered Louisa-"to whom would you like to be married?”
"I am married," said Wilhelmina. “I was married last evening at Dr. Pryor's. Then we went to the theater. We sat two rows behind Helen and Mrs. Wentworth, and we went out early on purpose to avoid them. I never thought of their driving past our restaurant. Then we came home. I sent you announcements this morning by special messenger. If you had waited a little longer you would have got them. The others have gone by mail."
"Announcements," cried Harriet-"to your sisters!"
"I did n't wish to be talked over even for a week."
"And who-" gasped Louisa, in her mind a dozen frantic possibilities of attractive, foolish boys and unattractive old men, each of whom was an enemy taking an inheritance away from her children"who is the man?"
"The man?" Wilhelmina flushed crimson. A man appeared suddenly in the doorway. At sight of him Louisa groaned once more. It was John Barrett. She had been praying that he would not ap
John Barrett seemed to be very much at home. He walked across the room, put his arm round Wilhelmina, and called her Tiny.
"What do you think of it?" he asked them all.
"John!" said Miles Barrett.
"Is it you?" cried Louisa.
"Of course," said John Barrett. "None